Editorial: A crossroads conundrum at historic Northampton intersection

Last modified: Tuesday, December 10, 2013
One of the oldest and busiest intersections in Northampton needs help — again. Traffic planners seem to be on the right track with proposals, outlined in the Gazette last week, to make small, immediate changes. When money becomes available later, more significant changes can — and should — be made to the downtown junction outside the Academy of Music.

Once, a canal ran near the intersection at Main, Elm, State and New South streets. That ditch is gone, but this is still a place that must accommodate a lot of people every day, moving in cars, on bikes and on foot. As reader comments on GazetteNET illustrate, it isn’t just traffic planners who like to propose solutions to problems with how we all get around.

As people who travel through here know, this intersection is a bit of a Gordian Knot. For example, those dumped into it from West Street, just up from the lights, take a dodgy hard left, a squirrely right-left maneuver to get to State Street, or just a right, with or without a traffic signal’s OK. We get a little tired just thinking about it.

A few of the proposals developed by a traffic consulting firm deal with problems that arose from earlier solutions. That’s understandable, because the city felt a need to safeguard the public by placing barrels along a portion of New South Street after a man died after being struck in a crosswalk a year ago. The barrels closed a lane of traffic approaching the traffic light.

But that fix has resulted in traffic backups. And so next year, the barrels will be replaced with new curbing meant to achieve the same gain in safety, but at less cost in congestion. The plan developed by Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates of Boston calls for a new curb that would continue to protect safety at the crosswalk, but then seek to move traffic along by designating a left-hand turn lane for vehicles to turn east onto Main Street.

If that sounds like a simple solution, the consultants most likely would agree. Wayne Feiden, director of the city’s Office of Planning and Sustainability, says the plan seeks to simplify this intersection by making that and other changes. The company is arguing that by making the junction simpler, it can be safer and more efficient.

One change that makes sense is to end the practice of inviting pedestrians to take a long walk diagonally across the intersection from the corner of the Edwards Church to the Sullivan Square corner. They would instead cross Main or State streets, a more conventional option in a “box” intersection.

Elsewhere, new traffic islands would seek to make pedestrians more visible and establish more conventional turning choices for drivers. The plan calls for more corners where drivers can turn right on red. That helps move cars along and reduce idling.

While a roundabout was once proposed here, that’s no longer on the table. If the new junction can hasten travel while improving safety, it will be an improvement.